Occupational Health News Roundup

April 2010 saw two major workplace disasters: The April 5th explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, where 29 workers lost their lives, and the April 20th explosion at the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig that killed 11 workers. Four years later, Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette reminded us that “for those who lost loved ones, April 5 is now forever the day that they became a widow or an orphan, the day they lost their son or their best friend.” He posted the names of the 29 miners and a slideshow memorial about them at his Coal Tattoo blog.

The BP Deepwater Horizon explosion also resulted in a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where its effects are still being felt today (see the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s site for articles). Among those suffering four years later are many of the thousands of cleanup workers who labored to remove oil from water, beaches, and other affected areas. Scientists with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences are studying the health of nearly 33,000 cleanup workers, and The Times-Picayune’s Jennifer Larino reports on their latest update:

Dale Sandler, a principal investigator with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences epidemiology group and leader of the research effort, said early data show symptoms of depression are prevalent among cleanup workers. The study group reported symptoms at a rate 30 percent higher than other people in areas affected by the oil spill.

Sandler said the findings are “not a surprise” given the stressful and dirty work most cleanup workers were involved in. Most were residents of communities impacted by the spill, which prior research show are prone to higher rates of depression and anxiety, she said.

Still she said there is no definitive link between the spill and mental and physical health problems.

Sandler said her team is still gathering key data, including how much oil and dispersants each participant was exposed to.

“It will be many years before we can know if the oil spill had an impact on the risk of developing chronic disease such as lung disease or cancer,” Sandler said.

In other news:

Washington PostAfter OUR Walmart and A Better Balance pressured the retail giant over its lack of a policy assuring accommodations (like switching to lighter-duty jobs) for pregnant workers who need them, Walmart issued a new policy saying a woman employee with “a temporary disability caused by pregnancy” may be eligible for “reasonable accommodation.” Advocates say the policy doesn’t go far enough and the emphasis on the word “disability” is problematic. And, Salon spoke to Tiffany Beroid, a Walmart worker who was refused lighter-duty work while pregnant and became a poster child for the OUR Walmart campaign, who says she faced retaliation at work the day the Washington Post piece was published.

San Gabriel Valley Tribune (California): On the same day, two nurses at separate UCLA hospitals were stabbed; one of them has been hospitalized in critical condition, and the two alleged attackers are in custody. In February, SEIU Local 121RN and SEIU Nurse Alliance of California petitioned the state’s Occupational Safety & Health Standards board for a workplace violence prevention standard for healthcare workers.

Slate’s The XX Factor: In the past, judges have dismissed assault and harassment suits filed against employers by interns, because unpaid workers don’t meet the definition of employees. A new law in New York City extends existing human-rights protections to include unpaid workers, which gives them the right to sue their employers for harassment and discrimination. Oregon and Washington, DC already have similar laws, and a bill is in committee in California. (For more on the distinction between employees and interns, see ProPublica and the Department of Labor.)

NIOSH Science Blog: Researchers from the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health analyzed Washington state obesity rates by occupation, and found that while 24.6% of all Washington state workers are obese, obesity prevalence in specific occupations ranges from 11.6% to 38.6%. Truck driving was the occupation with the highest percentage of obese workers.

CIDRAP: Healthcare workers are among those diagnosed with the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), for which the World Health Organization reports 212 lab-confirmed cases, 88 of them fatal. The United Arab Emirates has announced that six paramedics have been found to have MERS, and one of them has died from it.